early travellers to egypt

Miss Amelia Edwards

The Giza Pyramids, 1873-74

The following accounts of visits to the Pyramids of Giza come from the pen of Miss Amelia Ann Blanford Edwards (1831-1892), a redoubtable English traveller and lady novelist of the Victorian era. Miss Edwards had, with her companion, been driven by inclement weather in southern Europe to embark upon travels in the more predictable climate of the Nile Valley. From the winter of 1873-1874, therefore, Miss Edwards and several friends hired a dhahabiyeh and journeyed up the Nile from Cairo to Abu Simbel. Her experiences and observations were to form the basis of a published account, A Thousand Miles Up the Nile, first published in 1877.

Miss Amelia B. EdwardsThe book quickly became a best-seller, chiefly for its descriptions of Egypt in the late nineteenth century, but also because of its description of that country’s many antiquities, much neglected and largely unexcavated in Miss Edward’s era. Upon her return to England, Miss Edwards went on to become, in 1882, one of the founders of the Egypt Exploration Fund (now Society), thereby adding yet another dimension to her considerable legacy.

First Extract

The first extract from A Thousand Miles concerns the first brief visit of Miss Edwards and her companion to the pyramid field of Giza, soon after their arrival in both Cairo and, indeed, Egypt. Miss Edwards’ reasons for such a short stay she makes clear at the outset.

One of our first excursions was, of course, to the Pyramids, which lie within an hour and half’s easy drive from the hotel door. We started immediately after an early luncheon, followed an excellent road all the way, and were back in time for dinner at half-past six. But it must be understood that we did not go to see the Pyramids. We went only to look at them. Later on (having meanwhile been up the Nile and back, and gone through months of training), we came again, not only with due leisure, but also with some practical understanding of the manifold phases through which the arts and architecture of Egypt had passed since those far-off days of Cheops and Chephren. Then, only, we can be said to have seen the Pyramids; and till we arrive at that stage of our pilgrimage, it will be well to defer everything like a detailed account of them or their surroundings. Of this first brief visit, enough therefore a brief record.

The first glimpse that most travellers now get of the Pyramids is from the window of the railway carriage as they come from Alexandria; and it is not impressive. It does not take one’s breath away, for instance, like a first sight of the Alps from the high level of the Neufchâtel line, or the outline of the Acropolis at Athens as one first recognises it from the sea. The well-known triangular forms look small and shadowy; and are too familiar to be in any way startling. And the same, I think, is true of every distant view of them, – that is, of every view which is too distant to afford the means of scaling them against other objects. It is only in approaching them, and observing how they grow with every foot of the road, that one begins to feel they are not so familiar after all.

But when at last the edge of the desert is reached, and the long sand-slope climbed, and the rocky platform gained, and the Great Pyramid in all its unexpected bulk and majesty towers close above one’s head, the effect is as sudden as it is overwhelming. It shuts out the sky and the horizon. It shuts out all the other Pyramids. It shuts out everything but the sense of awe and wonder.

Now, too, one discovers that it was with the forms of the Pyramids, and only their forms, that one had been acquainted all these years past. Of their surface, their colour, their relative position, their number (to say nothing of their size), one had hitherto entertained no kind of definite idea. The most careful study of plans and measurements, the clearest photographs, the most elaborate descriptions, had done little or nothing, after all, to make one know the place beforehand. This undulating table-land of sand and rock, pitted with open graves and cumbered with mounds of shapeless masonry, is wholly unlike the desert of our dreams. The Pyramids of Cheops and Chephren are bigger than we expected; the Pyramid of Mycerinus is smaller. Here, too, are nine Pyramids, instead of three. They are all entered in the plans and mentioned in the guide-books; but, somehow, one is unprepared to find them there, and cannot help looking upon them as intruders. These six extra Pyramids are small and greatly dilapidated. One, indeed, is little more than a big cairn.

Even the Great Pyramid puzzles us with an unexpected sense of unlikeness. We all know, and have known from childhood, that it was stripped of its outer blocks some five hundred years ago to build Arab mosques and palaces; but the rugged, rock-like aspect of that giant staircase takes us by surprise, nevertheless. Nor does it look like a partial ruin, either. It looks as if it had been left unfinished, and as if the workmen might be coming back to-morrow morning.

The colour again is a surprise. Few persons can be aware beforehand of the rich tawny hue that Egyptian limestone assumes after ages of exposure to the blaze of an Egyptian sky. Seen in certain lights, the pyramids look like piles of massy gold.

Having but one hour and forty minutes to spend on the spot, we resolutely refused on this first occasion to be shown anything, or told anything, or to be taken anywhere, – except, indeed, for a few minutes to the brink of the sand-hollow in which the Sphinx lies couchant. We wished to give our whole attention, and all the short time at our disposal, to the Great Pyramid only. To gain some impression of the outer aspect and size of this enormous structure, – to steady our minds to something like an understanding of its age, – was enough, and more than enough, for so brief a visit.

For it no easy task to realise, however imperfectly, the duration of six or seven thousand years; and the Great Pyramid, which is supposed to have been some four thousand two hundred and odd years old at the time of the birth of Christ, is now in its seventh millennary. Standing there close against the base of it; touching it; measuring her own height against one of its lowest blocks; looking up all the stages of that vast, receding, rugged wall, which leads upward like an Alpine buttress and seems almost to touch the sky, the Writer suddenly became aware that these remote dates had never presented themselves to her mind until this moment as anything but abstract numerals. Now, for the first time, they resolved themselves into something concrete, definite, real. They were no longer figures, but years with their change of season, their high and low Niles, their seed-times and harvests. The consciousness of that moment will never, perhaps, quite wear away. It was as if one had been snatched up for an instant to some vast height overlooking the plains of Time, and had seen the centuries mapped out beneath one’s feet.

To appreciate the size of the Great Pyramid is less difficult than to apprehend its age. No one who has walked the length of one side, climbed to the top, and learned the dimensions from Murray, can fail to form a tolerably clear idea of its mere bulk. The measurements given by Sir Gardner Wilkinson are as follows:- length of each side, 732 feet; perpendicular height, 480 feet 9 inches; area  535,824 square feet. That is to say, is stands 115 feet 9 inches higher than the cross on the top of St. Paul’s, and about 20 feet lower than Box Hill in Surrey; and if transported bodily to London, it would a little more than cover the whole area of Lincoln’s Inn Fields. These are sufficiently matter-of-fact statements, and sufficiently intelligible; but, like most calculations of the kind, they diminish rather than do justice to the dignity of the subject.

More impressive by far than the weightiest array of figures or the most striking comparisons, was the shadow cast by the Great Pyramid as the sun went down. That mighty Shadow, sharp and distinct, stretched across the stony platform of the desert and over full three-quarters of a mile of the green plain below. It divided the sunlight where it fell, just as its great original divided the sunlight in the upper air; and it darkened the space it covered, like an eclipse. It was not without a thrill of something approaching to awe that one remembered how this self-same Shadow had gone on registering, not only the height of the most stupendous gnomon ever set up by human hands, but the slow passage, day by day, of more than sixty centuries of the world’s history.

It was still lengthening over the landscape as we went down the long sand-slope and regained the carriage. Some six or eight Arabs in fluttering white garments ran on ahead to bid us a last good-bye. That we should have driven over from Cairo only to sit quietly down and look at the Great Pyramid had filled them with unfeigned astonishment. With such energy and despatch as the modern traveller uses, we might have been to the top, and seen the temple of the Sphinx, and done two or three of the principal tombs in the time.

“You come again!” said they. “Good Arab show you everything. You see nothing this time!”

So, promising to return ere long, we drove away; well content, nevertheless, with the way in which our time had been spent.

The Pyramid Bedouins have been plentifully abused by travellers and guide-books, but we found no reason to complain of them now or afterwards. They neither crowded around us, nor followed us, nor importuned us in any way. They are naturally vivacious and very talkative; yet the gentle fellows were dumb as mutes when they found we wished for silence. And they were satisfied with a very moderate bakhshîsh at parting.

As a fitting sequel to this excursion, we went, I think next day, to see the mosque of Sultan Hassan, which is one of those mediæval structures said to have been built with the casing-stones of the Great Pyramid.

Second Extract

The second extract from A Thousand Miles derives from the longer visit Miss Edwards and her companion made to Giza upon their eventual return to Cairo and, indeed, not long before their departure from Egypt.

The first excursion one makes on returning to Cairo, the last one makes before leaving, is to Ghîzeh. It is impossible to get tired of the Pyramids. Here L. and the Writer spent their last day with the Happy Couple.

We left Cairo early, and met all the market-folk coming in from the country – donkeys and carts laden with green stuff, and veiled women with towers of baskets on their heads. The Khedive’s new palace was swarming already with masons, and files of camels were bringing limestone blocks for the builders. Next comes the open corn-plain, part yellow, part green – the long straight road bordered with acacias – beyond all, the desert-platform, and the Pyramids, half in light, half in greenish-grey shadow, against the horizon. I never could understand why it is that the Second Pyramid, though it is smaller and farther off, looks from this point of view bigger than the First. Farther on, the brown Fellahîn, knee-deep in purple blossom, are cutting the clover. The camels carry it away. The goats and buffaloes feed in the clearings. Then comes the half-way tomb nestled in greenery, where men and horses stay to drink; and soon we are skirting a great backwater which reflects the pyramids like a mirror. Villages, shadufs, herds and flocks, tracts of palms, corn-flats, and spaces of rich, dark fallow, now succeed each other; and then once more comes the sandy slope, and the cavernous ridge of ancient yellow rock, and the Great Pyramid with its shadow-side towards us, darkening the light of day.

Neither L. nor the Writer went inside the Great Pyramid. The Idle Man did so this day, and L.’s maid on another occasion; and both reported of the place as so stifling within, so foul underfoot, and so fatiguing , that, somehow, we each time put it off, and ended by missing it. The ascent is extremely easy. Rugged and huge as are the blocks, there is scarcely one upon which it is not possible to find a half-way rest for the toe of one’s boot, so as to divide the distance. With the help of three Arabs, nothing can be less fatiguing. As for the men, they are helpful and courteous, and as clever as possible; and coax one on from block to block in all the languages of Europe.

“Pazienza, Signora! Allez doucement – all serene! We half-way now – dem halben-weg, Fräulein. Ne vous pressez-pas, Mademoiselle. Chi va sano, va lontano. Six step more, and ecco la cima!”

“You should add the other half of the proverb, amici”, said I. “Chi va forte, va all morte”.

My Arabs had never heard this before, and were delighted with it. They repeated it again and again, and committed it to memory with great satisfaction. I asked them why they did not cut steps in the blocks, so as to make the ascent easier for ladies. The answer was ready and honest.

“No, no, Mademoiselle! Arab very stupid to do that. If Arab makes good steps, Howadji goes up alone. No more want Arab man to help him up, and Arab man earn no more dollars!”

They offered to sing “Yankee Doodle” when we reached the top; then, finding we were English, shouted “God Save the Queen!” and told us that the Prince of Wales had given £40 to the Pyramid Arabs when he came here with the Princess two years before; which, however, we took the liberty to doubt.

The space on top of the Great Pyramid is said to be 30 feet square. It is not, as I had expected, a level platform. Some blocks of the next tier remain, and two or three of the tier next above that; so making pleasant seats and shady corners. What struck us most on reaching the top, was the startling nearness, to all appearance, of the Second Pyramid. It seemed to rise up beside us like a mountain; yet so close, that I fancied I could almost touch it by putting out my hand. Every detail of the surface, every crack and parti-coloured stain in the shining stucco that yet clings about the apex, was distinctly visible.

Sphinx and Pyramids, engraving

Sphinx and Pyramids: Wood engraving by G. Pearson, based on a finished drawing executed in situ by Miss Edwards.

The view from this place is immense. The country is so flat, the atmosphere so clear, the standpoint so isolated, that one really sees more and sees farther than from many a mountain summit of ten or twelve thousand feet. The ground lies, as it were, immediately under one; and the great Necropolis is seen as a ground-plan. The effect must, I imagine, be exactly like the effect of a landscape seen from a balloon. Without ascending the Pyramid, it is certainly not possible to form a clear notion of the way in which this great burial-field is laid out. We see from this point how each royal pyramid is surrounded by its quadrangle of lesser tombs, some in the form of small pyramids, others partly rock-cut, partly built of massive slabs, like the roofing-stones of the Temples. We see how Khufu and Khafra and Menkara lay each under his mountain of stone, with his family and his nobles around him. We see the great causeways which moved Herodotus to such wonder, and along which the giant stones were brought. Recognising how clearly the place is a great cemetery, one marvels at the ingenious theories which turn the pyramids into astronomical observatories, and abstruse standards of measurement. They are the grandest graves in all the world – and they are nothing more.

A little way to the southward, from the midst of a sandy hollow, rises the head of the Sphinx. Older than the Pyramids, older than history, the monster lies couchant like a watch-dog, looking ever to the east, as if for some dawn that has not yet risen. A depression in the sand close by marks the site of that strange monument miscalled the Temple of the Sphinx. Farther away to the west on the highest slope of this part of the desert platform, stands the Pyramid of Menkara (Mycerinus). It has lost but five feet of its original height, and from this distance it looks quite perfect.

View from the top of the Great Pyramid, link buttonFor a photographic view from the top of the Great Pyramid of Khufu, courtesy of PBS Nova Online, click here.

Such – set in a waste of desert – are the main objects, and the nearest objects, on which our eyes first rest. As a whole, the view is more long than wide, being bounded to the westward by the Libyan range, and to the eastward by the Mokattam hills. At the foot of those yellow hills, divided from us by the cultivated plain across which we have just driven, lies Cairo, all glittering domes half seen through a sunlit haze. Overlooking the fairy city stands the Mosque of the Citadel, its mast-like minarets piercing the clearer atmosphere. Far to the northward, traversing reach after reach of shadowy palm-groves, the eye loses itself in the dim and fertile distances of the Delta. To the west and south, all is desert. It begins here at our feet – a rolling wilderness of valleys and slopes and rivers and seas of sand, broken here and there by abrupt ridges of rock, and mounds of ruined masonry, and open graves. A silver line skirts the edge of this dead world, and vanishes southward in the sun-mist that shimmers on the farthest horizon. To the left of that silver line we see the quarried cliffs of Turra, marble-white; opposite Turra, the plumy palms of Memphis. On the desert platform above, clear though faint, the Pyramids of Abusîr and Sakkârah, and Dahshûr. Every stage of the Pyramid of Ouenephes, banded in light and shade, is plain to see. So is the dome-like summit of the great Pyramid of Dahshûr. Even the brick ruin beside it which we took for a black rock as we went up the river, and which looks like a black rock still, is perfectly visible. Farthest of them all, showing pale and sharp amid the palpitating blaze of noon, stands, like an unfinished tower of Babel, the Pyramid of Meydûm. It is in this direction that our eyes turn oftenest – to the measureless desert in its mystery of light and silence; to the Nile where it gleams out again and again, till it melts at last into that faint distance beyond which lie Thebes, and Philæ, and Abou Simbel.

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